Artemisia: Biography

artself.jpg (28333 bytes)

Artemisia: Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting,
1630-32, Royal Collection, London, DETAIL 

Artemisia Gentileschi was born on July 8, 1593 to Orazio Gentileschi, painter and to Prudentia Montone, who died when Artemisia was young. She was their only daughter. Her father trained her from an early age as an artist, and introduced her to the numerous artists of Rome, including Caravaggio whose use of dramatic chiaroscuro (light and shadow) influenced her painting.

Orazio painted frescos with the artist, Agostino Tassi, whom he asked to teach her daughter perspective. During these lessons, Tassi raped the 18 year old Artemisia, and promising to soon marry her, continued to demand her sexual favors. When her father found out, Tassi was arrested for rape, and Artemisia was thrust into the middle of a celebrated rape case which received considerable publicity and ruined her reputation. Tassi was convicted, but released by the judge, who also ordered Artemisia to be tortured as a means of proving her honesty. The transcripts of the trial are still available today.
artmichel.jpg (9800 bytes) The pregnant Artemisia was married off one month after the trial to a family friend, Peter Antonio Stiattesi whom she left within a few years. Soon after the trial, she painted her first Judith beheading Holofernes painting, clearly a cathartic expression of her rage and violation.

During the years after the trial, Artemisia lived in Florence, where she gave birth to a daughter, and  became the protege of Michelangelo the Younger, nephew of Michelangelo, who favored her and paid her well for her work on the life of Michelangelo for the Casa Buonoratti. Here, she painted the panel/frieze "Inclinazione", pictured on the left. 

Artemisia did well in Florence, gaining the support and patronage of Grand Duke Cosimo Medici. When he died in 1621, she painted with her father in Genoa, where she completed her Lucretia and Cleopatra. Forever in search of patronage, she lived again in Florence and Rome during the 1620s, then moved in 1630, to Naples, the second largest city in Europe, where commissions were available. During this time, she was continually struggling to reconcile her own artistic preferences with the preferences of her patrons, who made her livelihood possible. Here in Naples, she painted her Bathsheba, and Lot and His Daughters, and raised the money she sought for her own daughter's marriage in 1637.

Although separated from her father for many years, Artemisia joined him in 1638 on a joint painting commission for King Charles I of England, painting ceiling canvases for the Queen's house. Here, Artemisia painted the Allegory of Peace, including most of its Muses - and most notably, Clio, Muse of History.  Her ailing father died in 1639, but Artemisia continued to work in England until 1642, when she returned to Naples. During her last ten years, her primary patron was Don Antonio Ruffo; more is known about these years than any others because 28 of her letters to him which still survive.

The cause and timing of Artemisia's death is not known, but she most likely died in 1652. Unfortunately, however, the rape trial, her unconventional life as a female painter, and her numerous paintings of powerful women struggling against male dominance did not endear her to the male aristocracy. Several derogatory epitaphs were published about her in 1653, such as: "By painting one likeness after another/  I earned no end of merit in the world/ While, to carve two horns upon my husband's head/I put down the brush and took a chisel instead."

Thirty four of her paintings survive today, as well as the near complete transcript of the rape trial, published in full in Mary Gerrard's Artemisia Gentileschi, The Image of the Female Hero in Italian Baroque Art.

ANALYSIS: Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting
Oil on Canvas, early 1630s
Detail at top of page, scanned by Tika Yupanqui

One of Artemisia's most notable paintings is her Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting, meant to be a portrait not only of herself but also of Pittura, the originator of the art of painting according to Ripa's Iconologia. Like both Rubens and Rembrandt, her self-portrait is not an idealization; she portrays herself with disheveled hair, as an artist might have when lost in the intoxication of creativity.
This painting reveals Artemisia's masterfully subtle but vibrant use of color, both in flesh tones and the dress. Her face is natural and realistic, painted with careful attention to detail.

As a woman, Artemisia was not able to use male models for her subjects, and only infrequently able to use female models. As a result, she often had to use her own features and body as a source of inspiration. Clearly her, her aim is not to call attention to her own womanliness, but rather to reveal her own talent as an artist.


Artemisia Gentileschi: Biographical Links

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Photos were scanned and optimized by Tracy Marks (alias Tika Yupanqui of
Ancient Sites) and may not be used without permission. The content of this web site
is copyright 1999 by Tracy Marks.

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